Heralded trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire handed off the Invitation series leadership to pianist Tigran Hamasyan at Gesù, joined by bassist Sam Minaie and Justin Brown on drums. Later in the set, he referred to his three-night stand at my favourite room in town "the most life-changing musical experience of [his] career." Akinmusire welcomed the audience into his dark, almost flugelhorn-like sound with a solo introduction to "As We Fight," joined by Tigran's bell-tone acoustic piano chords. The piece moves into its various sections via metric modulations - Hamasyan was so at ease with these and conducting Minaie and Brown through them, I initially thought it was his composition. I'm not sure if it's a conceit of the piece but Minaie and Brown felt like they were operating in separate universes; the bizarre tonality of Minaie's distortion pedal on electric bass - all high end and no body - didn't necessarily help here.
The highlights of the set were the duos between Akinmusire and Hamasyan. The first, an Armenian folk song, put into relief the control these two have over their respective instruments. Ambrose added a lot of breathiness into his sound, the notes barely whispering out of the bell of the horn. Hamasyan displayed incredible dynamic range, caressing harmonies out of the piano. Akinmusire's technique is impeccable, and yet he doesn't draw attention to it in an obvious way. His solo intro to his own "Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child" was remarkable for its intervallic leaps - I was more taken by the line itself, and then realized just how much technique and control he needs to execute those ideas. Seamlessly adding smears, growls and half-valve effects, the easiest comparison is to Dave Douglas in terms of the breadth of trumpet vocabulary (as well as the bouncing at the knees), but Ambrose very clearly has a unique sound.
Tigran, playing Rhodes on this impeccable Ambrose ballad, is possibly more overt about his technique in the rollicking counterpoint, virtuosic speed and repeated notes, but he too has an acute awareness of sonic texture. Running the Rhodes through a row of effects pedals and loopers, he created a spiraling universe of delay that enveloped the tune - not unlike one of Akinmusire's other guests in this series, Bill Frisell. "Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child" was possibly the highlight of my Festival so far.
The ballad gave way to two trio moments - Tigran's radically reharmonized version of "Someday My Prince Will Come," and Ambrose's loose rendition of "All the Things You Are." Both tunes found Minaie playing cat-and-mouse with the leaders, Brown supporting them all the way. In the chordless trio, each member was so rhythmically and harmonically abstract that I longed for someone to hold down the centre for the other two to play against. The set ended with one of Tigran's tunes, unannounced, a dense piano figure full of polyrhythms that Brown somehow found a backbeat in. His drumming gave the tune a sense of groove, smoothing out the angularity of it - a musical decision I truly appreciated. After some ferocious applause, the two Invitation Series curators returned for another beautiful duo, on a standard so reharmonized I couldn't place it - possibly "Everything Happens to Me"?
I stuck around Gesù for piano mastery of a different order, from the fingers of Christian Sands with the Christian McBride Trio. On the opening "Day By Day," Sands made his apprenticeship with the masters Dr. Billy Taylor and Hank Jones very clear through his fleet, swinging lines and nimble block chords, with the underlying rhythmic freedom of more contemporary players. Spurred on by Ulysses Owens Jr.'s magnificent brushwork, McBride displayed a clarity of line (in both his walking and his soloing) unparalleled by most bassists. On the 12/8 groove of "Caravan," the trio displayed a sensitivity to silence, colour and texture normally associated with the greatest free improvisers, and often not heard in this more straightahead setting. At one point, Sands' montuno launched Owens into a double-time rumba frenzy.
McBride is a charismatic bandleader and host. He was obviously thrilled to be spending Canada Day in Canada, and made a point of it on the mic, much to the chagrin of many of the Québécois in the audience. (Not going to go there...) I think all of the audience could celebrate his roll call of Canadian musicians, from OP to Renee Rosnes, off the top of the set. McBride's repertory continued with Jobim's "Triste," with glimmers of Owens' facility with Brazilian grooves, the nonchalant gutbucket swing of Billy Taylor's "Easy Walker," and the "slow sexy thing" of Freddie Hubbard's "Povo."
I skipped out while McBride's trio dove into a blistering tempo with Owens showcasing his brush mastery, and ran down Ste-Catherine street to Club Soda to support the Bay Area hip-hop of Latyrx (Lateef the Truth Speaker & Lyrics Born). I was absolutely stunned to see maybe 30 people in the crowd, and Latyrx performing as though it were a sold-out 2000-capacity club. Both capable singers as well as socially engaged and rhythmically active MCs, the duo - returning after a 16-year hiatus - roared into a bunch of new tunes, joined by a DJ and a live drummer. I'm not sure why Bay Area hip-hop doesn't get more love on this coast, but these guys are worth discovering if you don't know them.